BALTIMORE – Not much has gone right for the Baltimore Orioles in 2018, and the team’s hopes of returning to the playoffs are all but over.
It’s a depressing state of affairs in Birdland, with 114 games still remaining and the highly speculated departure of generational star Manny Machado rapidly approaching. While the team’s home-run reliant offense, poor defense, and inconsistent pitching staff have all contributed to the abysmal 15-33 record, one man more than any other has been lumped with criticizm during the struggles – Chris Davis.
The decline of Davis has been so remarkable and so rapid, that it’s now very hard to believe the same man was once the most feared hitter in baseball – and it wasn’t all that long ago either.
During the 2013-2015 seasons, Davis won two home run titles, a Silver Slugger Award, was an All-Star, and in 2013 came third in the American League MVP voting. Throughout this highly successful stretch, the burly 230 lb left-handed hitter deposited 126 bombs into bleachers all over America, while also hitting consistently enough to own a .252/.347/.544 slash line. His production was massive with 327 RBIs over those three seasons, and despite striking out in 31% of plate appearances, his value to the team was paramount.
Entering free agency at the end of the 2015 season, only a liar would now be heard crowing that they weren’t supportive of Davis’ return to Baltimore back then, and quite frankly, the fans would have demanded Dan Duquette’s lynching had he not been re-signed. The one thing which always was hotly debated though was the size of the contract agreed on between Davis and the Orioles’ front office, which was ultimately to the tune of seven-years, $161 million. The duration and figure were, at the time, seemingly too high, and over the years since it’s become widely speculated (albeit unproven) that the Orioles may have been bidding against themselves. Regardless of how it transpired, the investment was too high and too great a risk – something I commented on extensively online at the time.
While hindsight is wonderful and never going to solve any of the problems currently facing the Orioles, we’re now three years into that deal and Chris Davis is arguably the worst player in all of baseball. While that claim seems rather dramatic and may be hotly debated, the numbers don’t lie, with Fangraphs currently listing Davis and his 2018 -1.4 WAR at rock bottom – and by a significant margin too. This season the “big fella”, as he is commonly referred to by Orioles radio announcer Joe Angel, is slashing just .158/.236/.259 and he has struck out in 36% of plate appearances. In the three seasons since signing the monster deal, he is hitting just .210 and owns a .730 OPS – some .161 points lower than the figure he reached in the three years prior. His 477 strikeouts during this stretch are 62 more than anyone else in baseball (Justin Upton, 415), while his RBI production has dropped a staggering 42%.
The Statcast data also reveals a sorry tale, with an alarming decline in barreled ball %, exit velocity, launch angle, and hard hit % since the 2015 season.
There are a multitude of reasons behind Davis’ struggles, with a lack of confidence and pressure to perform since signing such a large deal being two that are often speculated. While these are likely playing a role, the way in which opposing teams are handling him when at the plate has also changed. A fastball hitter, Statcast data further reveals that that number of fastballs he sees has dropped almost 5% from 60.2% to 55.4% since 2015. The number of offspeed pitches he sees meanwhile has jumped almost 4%, from 13.1% to 16.6%.
Data obtained from Brooks Baseball highlights that there’s been very little difference in the location of pitches Davis sees, when comparing data from 2013 to 2015 and data from 2016 to 2018. In fact, the difference in the amount of pitches he’s seeing on the inside or outside of the plate is less than 1%.
An obstacle which Davis is struggling to overcome is hitting against the shift, which he is increasingly being forced to deal with. During the 2015 season, the shift was deployed against Davis 80.9% of the time. In 2018 though, it has risen to 91%. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) against the shift in 2018 is just .225, which is significantly lower than the .377 mark he recorded in 2015. This continues a steadily decline being seen these past three seasons (.344 in 2016 and .303 in 2017).
One final explanation which is a little harder to prove, is that Davis’ bat speed simply isn’t what it once was. While there are no reliable measurements which record this data, the decline in barreled ball %, exit velocity, launch angle, and hard hit % since the 2015 season would indicate his swing has slowed considerably and he is struggling to get around on fastballs. The Spray Heatmap data obtained from Baseball Savant below compares Davis’ 2015 and 2018 seasons. On the left (2015), it shows Davis’ ability to pull a fastball to the right side, while on the right (2018), it shows he is far more inclined to hit the opposite way.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, whichever way you look at it, all the data suggests Chris Davis is not the feared hitter he once was and his extended struggles indicate this is more than a prolonged slump. With almost five seasons remaining on his contract, and in excess of $120 million remaining to be paid, the organization has an enormous headache on its hands and one which doesn’t look like being cured anytime soon.